Twenty or so people were crowded around the front door, many with cameras ready. Something was grabbing their attention inside a hip San Francisco barbershop. Suddenly one man in front turned and started speaking loudly in German.
Later he told me, “I am from Procter & Gamble’s salon division in Germany. We organized this four-day tour. We are here to see the best salons, looking for new ideas and inspiration.”
Ah, if only it was that easy to find best practices in our profession — or that stylish. So, how does one go about finding what’s best in enterprise learning? You know, practices to model, stellar programs that show the way, something to set a new standard and serve as a benchmark for the rest of us? I spoke with three learning leaders who described their best practices for finding best practices.
Work your network: Dick Richardson, leadership adviser and consultant, was director of leadership development at ITT and IBM. His job: Make sure his organization had the best leadership program in the world. “Everyone has a professional network,” Richardson said. “Start by contacting the best people you know. Ask what they are doing that is similar, how they are addressing the need.” Listen to their ideas, and afterward ask who they would talk to inside or outside their organizations.
Become embedded: Charles Jennings was CLO of Reuters and is founder of the 70:20:10 Forum. He has encyclopedic knowledge of leadership and learning and says this is the way to maintain access to best practices. “The high performers in any field are deeply embedded in their profession. They attend conferences, read journals, participate in discussions about the profession; they engage as many ways as they can. That is how you will find good practice and exploit it to benefit your organization.” Beyond building personal connections with colleagues, becoming embedded requires making intellectual connections between new and older ideas, and having a connection between one’s goals and wider issues from the profession.
Look to the big players: Richardson said he has a bias. “I believe big organizations lead the way in learning programs — they have the resources. Look to IBM, Exxon, GE, others on the Fortune 50.” Learning what the major firms are doing provides a solid benchmark of practices and gets you close to the exemplars. “After starting with those contacts, I will go to the opposite extreme — the smaller firms — those that may be doing exceptional work in some innovative way.” Smaller firms have to be more creative and resourceful; they can take more risks and try new things.
Build boardroom credibility: When you draw on resources from renowned business schools, you benefit from the latest research and gain an edge on acceptance from management, Richardson and Jennings said. Richardson has contracted with top schools and individual professors to survey an area or summarize the latest research. He will sometimes look up the author of a relevant journal article to dig deeper into the topic. They say read what the officers in your organization read, industry specific and general management. Universally, that includes the Harvard Business Review.
Adapt, don’t adopt: Mike Morrison headed University of Toyota for years, and now consults through a company he founded called Learn Plan Do. While at Toyota, Morrison learned the practices of quality guru W. Edwards Deming. Here’s the thing: Morrison did not just adopt the quality process; he adapted it for the learning function, creating the Learn-Plan-Do model. After years of seeing others visit Toyota to learn best practices, he made this observation: Some tried to adopt the best practices outright — wrong — while others adapted best practices to their unique situation and environment — right.
Use a vendor to select your vendor: Richardson has one more trick up his sleeve. On more than one occasion, he has contracted with a provider to help select a program provider. The provider starts by confirming the needs and contributing to the specifications.
These approaches are valuable, and may represent best practices, but there might be better ways. Can you imagine the world we would live in if research scientists had to work that hard to find out what others had discovered? As a profession, we can do better.